Geert Wilders is on trial in Holland. He is accused of violating Articles 137(c) and (d) of the Dutch criminal code for group insult of Muslims, inciting hatred of and discrimination against Muslims due to their religion, and fomenting hatred of non-Western immigrants. These allegations are based on numerous public statements as well as his film, Fitna, which juxtaposes Qur’anic verses with images of acts of violence and/or hatred by Muslims.
Surrounding Wilders’ trial is a debate that has been raging for a long time–a debate about the role and relevance of broad free speech rights and possible limits on this fundamental human right. For Wilders’ opponents, the red line is best drawn at the point speech becomes deeply offensive, whereas free speech advocates working with the American jurisprudential model draw that line at the point speech becomes a direct incitement to imminent violence.
Of course, as many commentators have pointed out, there are serious problems with Wilders’ self-representation as the champion of free speech. He has, for example, publicly stated that the Qur’an should be banned in his country. Despite Wilders’ complete incompetence as a champion of free speech, the fact remains that he his still protected by free speech principles. As much as his denigration of Islam and its Prophet – my Prophet – disturbs and offends me profoundly, protecting Wilders’ right to spew hateful speech is the only way to get past the hatred to a better place. For one, legitimizing a ban on Wilders’ speech puts us on a slippery slope to legitimizing further, far worse limitations. It sets up a legal landscape where Wilders’ ludicrous desire to ban the Qur’an might find an avenue for realization.
But perhaps worse than banning books is halting dialogue–conciliatory speech that allows us to share commonalities, build bridges, and develop society beyond its current prejudices. To defeat “bad” speech, we need more “good” speech; to overcome polarizing speech, we need unifying speech. In the end, the solution is always more, not less, speech.
And yet the discussion cannot simply end there. While legal sanctions on non-violent speech are reprehensible because they give the state undue control over its citizens’ expression, some attention must be given to the sociological problem of the ways speech is used and manipulated. We have to move past the question of legalities and consider the role of speech in our collective social responsibility; we need to formulate social–not legal–solutions to speech that aims to divide. After all, imposing legal restrictions simply takes the burden off individuals to moderate themselves.
Consider, for example, the Dalia Mogahed and John Esposito assertion, based on a worldwide survey, that there is support for free speech among strong majorities of Muslims, and that these Muslims’ concerns about Wilders’ film were not about the free speech principle in the abstract, but rather the ways this liberty is used to foment an environment of unreasoned hostility toward minorities. As Mogahed and Esposito explain in Free Speech and Muslims in Europe, Muslims around the world viewed Wilders’ film as “akin to using the ‘n-word,’ spewed from a position of power against a marginalized underclass — an expression of prejudice — not principle.”
This view is entirely justified. Judging from Wilders’ actions and words, steeped as they are in racial and religious bigotry, there is no doubt that, for him, free speech is nothing more than freedom to insult Muslims. His battle for human rights, which he insists are based on Judeo-Christian values with no contribution from Islam, requires that for Muslims to be tolerated in Europe, they must let go of their Islam.
Judging from polls, his message is resonating with a sizable segment in his country, and his trial will likely have the unfortunate effect of further popularizing him. He has the ability to harness the forces of hatred and to undo the foundations of humanitarianism, despite, of course, professing to uphold human rights.
To defeat such a trend, it is essential to focus on free speech as a problem-solver–a unifier, not divider. Free speech is a human right and thus by definition universal and inalienable and not to be limited by relevance to a specific time, place, or culture. It is precisely this universality that makes it the solution to time- and place-bound taboos, stigmas, and prejudices, since the best way to resolve these prejudices is with more speech; speech employed to educate, demand civil rights, or express through art our shared humanity.
And thus is the critical lesson to be learned from Wilders’ trial–to recognize the rights and responsibilities of free speech. We need to not only strenuously defend our right to free expression, but also exercise our duty to use that right to protect the rights of others. While Wilders’ speech may be legally permissible, it need not and should not be socially welcomed.